President Biden signed legislation on Thursday to make Juneteenth a federal holiday, enshrining June 19 as the national day to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States.
“All Americans can feel the power of this day, and learn from our history,” Mr. Biden said at a ceremony at the White House, noting that it was the first national holiday established since Martin Luther King’s Birthday in 1983.
He said signing the law was one of the greatest honors he will have as president.
The law went into effect immediately, making Friday the first federal Juneteenth holiday. Public schools were closed on a moment’s notice. The federal Office of Personnel Management announced that most federal employees would observe the holiday on Friday, since June 19 falls on a Saturday this year. At the White House, officials canceled the daily press briefing and pulled down normal meetings for Friday.
“Throughout history, Juneteenth has been known by many names: Jubilee Day. Freedom Day. Liberation Day. Emancipation Day. And today, a national holiday,” Vice President Kamala Harris said, introducing Mr. Biden. She also signed the legislation in her capacity as the president of the Senate.
Juneteenth commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. Its name stems from June 19, 1865, when Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger in Galveston, Texas, issued General Order No. 3, which announced that in accordance with the Emancipation Proclamation, “all slaves are free.” Months later, the 13th Amendment was ratified, abolishing slavery in the final four border states that had not been subjected to President Abraham Lincoln’s order.
Momentum to establish Juneteenth as a federal holiday picked up steam last year during a summer defined by racial unrest and Black Lives Matter protests in response to the murder of George Floyd by the police. In a bid to woo Black voters during the final months of the 2020 campaign, President Donald J. Trump promised to support legislation to establish the new federal holiday if he was re-elected. Still, some right-wing activists criticized Republicans who supported the measure.
At the White House, Mr. Biden singled out Opal Lee, an activist who at the age of 89 decided to walk from her home in Fort Worth to Washington, D.C., in an effort to get Juneteenth named a national holiday. The president called her “a grandmother of the movement to make Juneteenth a federal holiday” and got down on one knee to greet her in the audience.
He reminisced about meeting her last year while campaigning in Nevada. “She told me she loved me, and I believed it,” he joked. Mr. Biden also framed the holiday as part of his administration’s efforts to address racial equity throughout the federal government.
“The promise of equality is not going to be fulfilled until we become real, it becomes real in our schools and on our Main Streets and in our neighborhoods,” the president said. He pressed Americans to celebrate the new holiday as a day “of action on many fronts,” most important, vaccines.
“We have more to do to close the racial gap in vaccination rates,” Mr. Biden said.
At an enrollment ceremony at the Capitol on Thursday morning, during which Speaker Nancy Pelosi signed the bill, Representative G.K. Butterfield, Democrat of North Carolina, led lawmakers in singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which is often referred to as the Black national anthem.
Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the No. 3 House Democrat, said he would push for the song to be designated America’s “national hymn.”